The only link building tactic that nearly every marketplace shares is badges.  Yelp, Tripadvisor, Thumbtack, Houzz and many others use batches.  Typically they bait the businesses on their platform to put a badge to ‘highlight accomplishments’ and receive a link back in the process.

Most of these giant aggregators even do a ‘Best of YYYY’ list and offer special made up awards, further ego-baiting businesses into displaying their achievement on their websites.

As a result, the more you grow your business, the more relevant links you get.  Many of these aggregator sites end up outranking the original small business brand’s site for the latter’s branded term, stealing away some of that business’ traffic.  Some might say they’re taking advantage of the small businesses, while others argue it’s a fair value exchange.  But we’re not here to debate ethics – companies do it, and badging seems to be alive and well.

However, many websites have been penalized for using badges for link building.  It’s quite easy for Google to see a pattern with badges, and they are certainly ‘manipulating page rank’.  Google’s official stance says the following:

Widgets can help website owners enrich the experience of their site and engage users. However, some widgets add links to a site that a webmaster did not editorially place and contain anchor text that the webmaster does not control. Because these links are not naturally placed, they’re considered a violation of Google Webmaster Guidelines.

The examples Google gives are clearly pretty shiesty.

Of course, Big G also recommends no-following the links.  Good one Google.

So with the usual vague direction from Google, what is one to do in 2018?  Here are a few case studies to consider.

A post about Tripadvisor’s badge strategy includes a comment from Tripadvisor’s VP of SEO saying the following:

  1. Links in TripAdvisor widgets can be removed or No Followed – placement of widgets is voluntary.
  2. TripAdvisor no longer links widgets with rich anchor text and disavowed links from old widgets which contained rich anchor text when Google updated their widget guidelines

So Tripadvisor seems to feel that badging is OK, provided there’s no anchor text and that you can remove the links.  Got it.

When Thumbtack was famously penalized for their badging strategy, it wasn’t because of the badges themselves, but because Thumbtack was effectively paying for the links by offering businesses credits on the Thumbtack platform.  This would indicate the badges themselves were not the problem.

In a 2016 Whiteboard Friday, Rank Fishkin states that you will generally be OK if you follow these guidelines:

  • Keep that anchor text branded or omitted entirely. It’s non-branded anchor text. It’s just your brand name, or it’s very limited. It just says “Data Via,” and via is the link itself.
  • Opt-out of the link is available, meaning that someone could say, “Yeah, I want to embed that. Include a link back to sneakysneakers.com? No. No, thank you.”
  • There should be a compelling reason to click.
  • That embed is static.
  • It’s not controlled by JavaScript.
  • The widget feels like it’s reference-focused, so there’s actually some value there.
  • Only embedded intentionally by those who are naturally and editorially choosing to include it.

Rand is typically a pretty honest guy, has access to a lot of internal research, and usually veers way towards the white hat pulpit end of the spectrum.  So if he’s giving the OK, he probably really believes it’s safe.

One other thing to keep in mind is that these giant sites with thousands of badge links often earned their rankings over a decade ago, when you could play things a lot looser and the SERPs were wide open.

So, our recommendation for badge / embeddable links is:

  1. Don’t rely on badges as your only strategy. Google likely devalues embeddable links as they are easy to detect.  Additionally, badge links are typically a quantity game over quality.
  2. Use branded anchor text. We’ve yet to hear of someone who has been penalized for this.
  3. Link back to the business’ profile.  You’re avoiding risk and it’s the decent thing to do.
  4. Don’t pay for them.  Or don’t get caught, at least.
  5. Copy the best player you know. If another player in your vertical is doing badges, copy whatever they’re doing rather than reinvent the wheel.